It’s Earth Day….Does It Matter?
Earth Day… 2014. A day set aside decades ago to dedicate to the planet, and to energize the population to get off its collective ass and do something to “protect” it. It’s a noble cause, really it is. I’ve been a treehugger for a long time now, and I see nothing wrong with declaring a random date on the calendar as “Earth Day” to call attention to the fact that one single animal species on the planet is hellbent on raping the Earth until it’s uninhabitable. But does Earth Day matter?
I’m torn between being sunny-faced and optimistic about the day, and being totally cynical about it. On the one hand, it’s great to see groups of kids out picking up trash alongside the road or planting trees in the schoolyard. But on the other hand, the real problems facing the Earth, on a global scale, are beyond the reach of feel-good events like trash pickups. I’ve long ago grown tired of the annual Earth Day articles on how we can “Save the Planet” by changing our light bulbs and turning off the water when we brush our teeth. While these simple things are certainly beneficial and should be done by all of us, they’re not going to change the fact that as a society, we are rapidly approaching serious tipping points, beyond which it will be too late for us to do anything about the biggest environmental issue we’ve ever faced, climate change.
Changing the way we live our lives as individuals, by taking steps to use less energy or water, to eat organic and locally, to recycle or compost, to bike to work instead of drive, etc. etc. is important. I’m not downplaying our duty as individuals to do our part to live more lightly on the planet. Hell, I write articles about how such things save not only energy and create less waste and pollution, but save us a great deal of money as well over at Green Home Source. And I read more about energy-efficiency and water conservation than is probably considered normal. From LED lights to composting toilets, there are literally thousands of things we can do at home, work, or play to lower our personal environmental impacts. For our own sake, and the health of our communities and the planet as a whole, they are beneficial. They make us feel better about ourselves. They save energy…and water…and MONEY.
So, in that respect, go forth and celebrate Earth Day with as much gusto as you can muster. If it makes us think about our role in protecting the planet, if it gets a tree planted or a piece of trash picked up, if it gets us outdoors and away from our computers and devices, and gets us to smell the fresh air, to listen to the birds, or watch the river roll by, then those are all GOOD THINGS. My optimistic side cheers!!
It’s not enough. One day is not nearly enough to save the problems we’ve got going on. Earth Day will NOT in any way do the things we need to do in order to keep this planet hospitable for us and our plant and animal brethren. Here is where my cynical side becomes dominant and screams “WE ARE F*&%ED!!!”
Until we have a government here in the U.S. that isn’t full of climate deniers and politicians on both sides addicted to the dirty money of the oil lobby, we’re screwed. Until we have legislation that kick starts the difficult process of weaning us off of fossil fuels and towards more sustainable forms of energy, we’re screwed. Other governments around the world are a bit more progressive than ours, but that’s a really low bar. Inactivity is not proper governance. Nor is pretending that the changing climate isn’t changing. Because it is. One critical milestone after another is being reached on the road to a runaway climate change that will be impossible to slow down or reverse. One critical milestone, 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, was reached in 2013. A just-released study indicates that carbon levels are remaining over 400 ppm for months at a time. There is more carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere now than at any point in millions of years. And it’s predominantly caused by human activity.
Nearly every scientist who spends time studying such things agrees that continuing to pump carbon into the air and seas will cause global temperature averages to gradually climb. And that’s bad for all of us. Arctic ice caps are melting at an alarming rate. This water is contributing to sea levels rising around the planet. Low-lying coastal areas are going to be a very bad place to live in the future. I’m looking at you, Florida. And Bangladesh. And New York City.
Rising sea levels and air temperatures will wreak havoc on our weather as well. We’re seeing hints of what we have in store for us already. Crippling drought in California (where more of our food comes from than you’d probably care to imagine.) Record-breaking heat waves in Australia. Record snowfall and low temperatures in the Midwest. More frequent, more damaging hurricanes. More frequent, more damaging wildfires. More drought. More floods. More storms. Bigger storms. Some are calling for the term “global warming” to be changed to “global weirding,” since climate change is making our weather more extreme. When it rains, it’s going to rain HARD. When it’s dry, it’s going to be extremely dry for a long time. When it’s hot, it’s gonna be damn hot. And when it storms, brother it’s gonna STORM.
And climate change isn’t even the only thing we’ve got to deal with. From smog so bad it’s killing people in China to a global die-off of entire bee colonies (which further threatens our food production) to oil spills and fracking earthquakes, we’re fighting a war on a million fronts. And by having a government that chooses to ignore these issues, paid for by corporations that profit greatly by the extraction, sale, and burning of the fossil fuels that are doing most of the damage, we’re fighting that war with both hands tied behind our backs.
The longer we continue to do nothing about climate change or any other of the many, many issues facing our planets’ health, the harder it will be to turn things around. And more expensive.
In my opinion, there are three major areas where we need to start making changes now, to start bringing down those global atmospheric carbon levels, start cleaning up the air and the land and the seas, and create a more sustainable future.
1: We have to more seriously fund research and development of alternative forms of energy and fuel. We’re in the embryonic stages of a new era of renewable energy and alternatives to gas-burning, single occupant vehicle transportation. We need to ramp up production of renewable energy from sources like wind, solar, and geothermal. We need to continue development of electric vehicle technology and start planning the infrastructure that will get more of us out of our cars entirely. (I’m speaking of light rail, high-speed rail, and creating more livable/walkable/bikeable communities.) Coal, natural gas, and nuclear fuel sources aren’t going anywhere anytime soon; we’re simply too dependent on them for their energy. But sooner or later, we need to move on from them. Until that day, we need to continue developing a smart-grid system that takes in energy from a variety of sources, renewable and clean non-renewable. My dream? A future that doesn’t depend on transmitting power over long distances through inefficient grids, but rather a more decentralized system where structures create their own power on-site via solar, wind, or fuel cell.
2: World Population has to be addressed. Long considered a ‘third-rail” of environmentalism, the problem that can’t be discussed, our population numbers have to be brought under control. We’re well on our way to a population of 9 billion, on a planet that is already having great trouble feeding 7 billion. Land is finite. Resources are finite. Clean water is finite. We can’t continue adding billions of people to the mix without having massive problems. We need more, better family planning worldwide to start bringing these skyrocketing numbers under control manageably. If we don’t, at some point the planet’s systems will decide they’ve had enough and do it for us via massive drought, famine, and disease outbreaks.
3: Along the same lines as population control, we need to change our food habits. National Geographic ran a recent article on how we’re possibly going to feed nine billion people (read it HERE). Hint: Not easily. As more of the world’s nations become more prosperous, more people are eating more meat than ever before. All of that meat production, and the massive inputs it requires (as well as the environmental and ethical issues it creates) is taking its toll. I’m not calling for a world of vegetarians, but we need to eat less meat. By eating lower on the food chain, much less land, water, and food is required to feed us all. Less waste less climate-changing methane is produced.
As you can see, the laundry list of issues we’re dealing with is long. Too long. The good thing? The list of solutions is just as long. We know what we need to do to control climate change, to reduce poverty and hunger worldwide. We know what to do in order to provide clean air and water. We have the tools. We have the technology. (Well, most of it. The technology we don’t yet have, we soon will.) We have the knowledge. What we lack is the courage to change. What we lack is real leadership at the national and international levels. By promoting the status quo, the problems continue to mount.
…And the battle goes on in me between optimism and pessimism. The onslaught of bad news seems unrelenting. But at the same time, the stories of successes and of people making real change inspires me. Here are my final thoughts: We’ve all got to Do Something. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. So change those light bulbs. Grow that garden. Recycle those cans and bottles. Plant that tree. If you have the resources, take bigger steps: Invest in an electric car (or better yet, a really nice bike.) Put solar panels on your roof. Whether you celebrate Earth Day or not, or think it’s relevant or not, is unimportant. We need to do the small things every day to move us in the right direction, and make plans for the big things. And chief among those big things is supporting and voting for candidates who vow to fight for the future of the planet. Fight for changes to our political system that release the stranglehold of corporate money that sickens and weakens the entire nation. Only then will the society-wide changes that must start immediately start happening. This planet’s the only one we have; it’s worth fighting for.
So, here it is, Earth Day 2014. What are you doing inside reading this? Turn off your computer and get outside. It’s a beautiful day.